The contestant by Rick Morton (short story extract)

After a person dies, there is the game show.

An old timey woman and man sit on a ledge near a chair
Illustration by Rosie Handley
It is televised, though not as we might know it. The host is Beryl Lutwyche, a former resident of Earth who achieved near total enlightenment while raising three children and working in a dental clinic. 

And then there is fancy Paul, standing there on the set of the ethereal production with nervous hands and a face like a lost homing pigeon; all over the place. 

‘Paul, welcome back to The Life is Right. You are into the final rounds now, how are you feeling?’ 

‘Thanks Beryl, it’s good to be back. It’s been, uh, an experience. I have to say, I really want to win the major prize. I’m here to win.’ 

‘You are of course playing for eternal peace and rest. Let’s begin.’ 

A small orchestra somewhere out of sight strikes up a score. Lights flash in alternating patterns. The effect is dazzling; a studio thunderstorm. A frisson of danger in the thrashing of light and sound. 

Within eyesight of host and guest, an oversized screen appears in the air. 

‘Paul, we are about to watch your funeral service, held just a few days ago in a country church not far from where you were born,’ Beryl says, lighting a cigarette as she speaks. 

‘How many people attended and what memories or impressions did they impart? We’ll have to lock in your answers before we check the vision.’ 

The contestant clasps his hands together, the smooth flesh of each palm sliding against the other in a slick of sweat. 

‘It would have to be 50 people, at least, I reckon. Maybe 70.’ 

He falters here, eyes searching the air for the rest of an answer. 

‘And I think they would say that I made people laugh.’ 

‘Very common response that one,’ Beryl says. ‘You’d be surprised how often it doesn’t quite match what happened. Technician, let’s see the action replay.’ 

It is a middling affair. The church clung low to the ground, as if it were avoiding the very heavens. Orange bricks, standard arrangement. No miracles there. Inside, just 12 people. Faces clean. 

‘I’m so sorry Paul, wrong on the first answer. Let’s see who spoke and what they had to say.’ 

He stares at the screen and nods solemnly. 

‘Oh gosh, that’s my mum. We hadn’t spoken in 10 years, though I couldn’t even tell you why now,’ he says. 

The woman at the pulpit on screen composes herself briefly and speaks. 

‘Of course we loved Paul, my second eldest and only son. He was such a bright young boy. So curious. 

‘I liked that most about him, actually. He saw the world as an inviting puzzle, never quite caring if he actually solved it. The mystery drew him in, and it was enough to hold him. 

‘Honestly, I feel like I lost him a long time ago. The rest of it is too hard. Perhaps if I leave it there, that is the version of Paul that will be honoured here today.’ 

Paul’s mum is followed by a priest who, for whatever reason, keeps calling him David. The mourners do not correct him. 

‘A disappointing round, Paul,’ the host says. 

She has cheap acrylic nails that scratch her note cards accusingly. The giant screen disappears to somewhere in the roof. 

‘What went wrong?’

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